Saturday, July 3, 2010

Nine - Getting to Know America

The next morning came all too soon, and Maria, though she longed to open the present from the Padrone, did not do so. There simply was no time when she could open it in privacy. That morning, and every morning, Marigia awakened her with a brisk, “Time to get up!” and then set Maria to work. And work she did, all the day. And every day. By the time she went to bed, it was dark in her little corner of the storeroom. So the present waited for the day when Maria could be sure that she could open it alone and then put it in a place where she alone knew about it.

In the meantime, there was work and more work. It was not an easy life. But Maria found satisfaction in the cleaning and cooking, and the compliments that the borders gave her on her serving and her kindnesses.

Gradually, she became accustomed to the new pattern of living and it was not as challenging as at first. She was learning English—not as fast as she wanted to learn it, but quickly enough to get by in basic conversations with the people who did not speak Italian.

Maria’s new world was both larger and smaller than in Italy. There, the hills and fields around Neopoli had beckoned and nurtured her from childhood onward. Here, her circuit of familiarity went as the river flowed. Upriver was the valley of farmland that she had so admired—which she could catch glimpses of if she walked but a short distance in that direction. Not that Maria had much time to walk even a short distance from the house. That garden area was part of Harmarville proper, and then beyond lay Acmetonia and Cheswick of her mistaken train destination the day of her arrival. That was as far upriver that Maria had been. Beyond that and still, along the river, were places that she had only heard people speak of—Springdale, New Kensington, Tarentum, Brackenridge, Lower Burrell.

Downriver there was Hoboken and Aspinwall and then Sharpsburg. Maria soon traveled in that direction because the nearest parish church was at Sharpsburg. If she could be spared she would go there to mass. But this was not a regular Sunday habit, since Marigia had many Sundays in which Maria could not be spared. Maria knew that beyond Sharpsburg were Etna and Millvale and further still Pittsburgh, but those places she never visited in her first months of her time in America.

One Sunday a month after she had arrived, Maria was able to go to mass. And several of the borders were going so she traveled to and from Sharpsburg with them. Basilio and Aldo. Also with them were several new arrivals to the boarding house, a young man called Sam Valicenti and his cousin Alphonse Sinise.

Sam Valicenti was immediately interesting to Maria. He was a fine looking fellow, with short dark brown hair and light brown eyes that were almost hazel. A strong oval face held features that seemed to change with each mood or word. He had a mostly serious way about him but when he smiled it was such a fine smile. On the way to the church, they all talked about the places they were passing. Hoboken was a small place, strung along the river like most of these river towns. A few shops along the main road—a grocer, a tailor, a funeral parlor. Signs advertizing a dentist a doctor and a barber were also to be seen. But mostly it was an unassuming place, with wood framed houses, some perched on the uphill side of Freeport Road and others clustered down in the hollows toward the riverbanks. Down there, were also two different steel businesses, one called Blaw Steel Co. and the Knox Welded and Pressed Steel Co.

As they left Hoboken and went toward Aspinwall, they passed the Allegheny County Workhouse. It was a huge stone walled prison facility very imposing and frightening looking. To Maria it was the nearest thing she had seen in the new world that would compare with the castles of the old world, complete with guard towers on the corners and a walkway on the top of the wall.“

“And up over the hill is the Workhouse Farm,” said Basilio. “It is a big place and if you are going to have to work while you are in prison, not a bad place.”

Maria wondered how Basilio knew so much about it but she kept her thoughts to herself. Soon they were passing Ross Grove, a grove of trees popular with the locals for picnicking and strolling, and then the new waterworks buildings, with the big arched windows, which Maria recalled having seen from the train on her arrival day.

Thereafter came Aspinwall, a new suburb designed for prosperous families. The man who had the idea of it had gone all the way to New York City to interest Mrs. Annie Aspinwall, a direct descendant of James Ross, Sr., in the idea. She invested the money that proved to spark the development. Now, more than six hundred families were living in the planned town, with charming houses that Maria admired as they passed by. Some were big frame houses with deep porches. Others were made of the characteristic Western Pennsylvania yellow brick.

St Mary’s Church was an impressive place, begun by German settlers in the 1850s. Down the years the church grew and by this time they were in their second building—the first having been destroyed in a disastrous fire in 1866. The mass being in Latin, it did not matter that some of the congregation still used German as their first language and others, Italian. The familiar sights and sounds, the sharing of the Eucharist and the chanting of the choir all made Maria feel connected both to the worshipers around her and to her family so very far away in Neopoli.

On the way home, Maria and Sam and Alphonse They found that their towns were very near one another. They talked about the things they missed from home, and the people. Sam seemed determined that he would make something of himself in the world. Alphonse, though, was more introspective and talked about when he would go back to Italy.

“I am only here for as long as I have to be,” he said with quiet determination. “My home is back in Cersossmo.”

“I know how you feel,” Maria said. “Sometimes I miss home so much that it hurts. On those nights, I cry myself to sleep.

"You must not feel that way," said Sam. "It is still too soon to know what good things you may find here in America. You may turn out to make your fortune here."

"That is so," agreed Basilio. "You could be the next Carnegie. Time along will tell."

"I cannot wait for time to tell," Alphonse said. He held his hand up in a way that said determination, at least to Maria. "I want to go home. If I could go home now, I would go. As soon as I have money for my passage home, I am going. I will not look over my shoulder with regret."

"You have every right to go home," Maria said to him. "But you will be missed here."

Alphonse looked at her as if he had never thought of such a thing. "Thank you," he said quietly. The rest of the return trip was accomplished in a somber mood. Perpahs because of this conversation or perhaps simply because all too soon the morning away was over and it was back to the boarding house and work, work, work.

From the back of the big boarding house, Maria could look across the wide, deep, imposing Allegheny and see Hulton and Oakmont, really two parts of the same riverside community. Hulton was named for the family who ran the ferry from over there to right at their doorstep, or at least just at the end of their back yard. If you had a reason to cross the river, the Hulton ferry was the way to go. Nor really a ferry, it was a rowboat for passengers and a flatboat for those with lots of goods to move from one bank to the other. Maria did not like crossing the river; she never thought of it as a friendly river. It was too dark and deep and fast moving for fondness. But she found the passing river traffic of interest. Barges of coal, paddle-wheelers of all sizes, smaller craft. Every so often a houseboat.

Out the front windows, there was both much and little to see. Not much in the way of scenery, since the high, rocky cliffs drew very close to the front of the house. Indeed they were only separated from the house by the street, some called it Freeport Road and some called it Pittsburgh Street—it was known as both in this stretch of Harmar Township. In Maria’s imagination the cliffs were always at the point of coming down on the house in the middle of the night. This never happened in reality. But the hillside was notorious for rockslides. Large chunks of rock did from time to time fall downward and land in Freeport Road, making traffic along the road impossible. Then, gangs of prisoners from the nearby Workhouse at Hoboken were brought to chip away at the rocks till they were of manageable size and could be carted away.

The boardinghouse was practically in the street and so when people walked by or wagons wheeled by there was a lot of racket and if one wanted to pass the time by watching the passing parade, it was entertaining. Not that Maria had much time to stop and watch and be entertained.

Maria slowly got to know the area because from time to time she would be sent on errands here or there. Once she had to take the rowboat across the river to get some medicine from Olix Darity, the pharmacist at Hulton. She clung for dear life to the sides of the gunnels as they crossed. It was a strange enterprise as the man who ferried her across rowed as if they were going upstream and would land at Barton's Island.

"They tried a witch over they, many years ago," the ferryman told her. "Back when it was Brewster's Island. Judge Brewster let the woman get away and he had to scoot out of there because of the ruckus. Went all the way to Texas."

Maria tried to picture a witchcraft trial and ended up thinking that the island was even more frightening that it had appeared up till now.

"Brewster sold to Barton and from what I know the Barton family still owns it now. 'Course the rivermen all call it Twelve Mile Island since that's how far upstream it is from The Point."

He pulled hard till more than midway across the river and then made for the opposite shore as fast as he could. The same technique was used in reverse on the return trip.

The Oakmont public library opened the same year Maria arrived in America but she had little desire to risk her life in the rowboat to borrow books that were printed in a language still so foreign to her.

Maria was also sent to the Armstrong Brothers Store at Acmetonia for provisions or to buy fresh produce from James McRoberts, one of the farmers at Harmarville. Once, she was sent with a note to Harry Pierce the hotel keeper Acmetonia, the note turning out to be an overdue rent notice for one of her brother and sister-in-law’s borders who had moved to Pierce’s place without paying his rent.

It was a long three mile walk up to Acmetonia, but Maria did not mind it, since it got her away from the endless housework at the boarding house and out into the open air. She did not lollygag but she strolled in such a way that she enjoyed every step of the walk—about an hour there and an hour back. The birds were thick in the trees and she listened to their chatter. The red cardinals with their “Birdie! Birdie! Birdie!”and their trilled “Good Cheer!” Even Rico couldn't hold a candle to these charming and brilliant red beauties, Maria thought. Then there were the blue jays with their “Jay! Jay!” and hawk-like cries. Most of all she enjoyed hearing the mocking birds who gave an exuberant concert by borrowing all the other bird’s songs and making them their own.

Along the way she saw several of her farmer friends, those rescuers of her first day. Giovanni Contadino stopped his work and came across the field to greet her.

“How goes it for you, Maria?” he asked.

She told him about her first several weeks at the boarding house and her impressions, good and bad, of the people there.

Giovanni shook his head when he heard about her room, “That isn’t right,” he said. “Everyone needs a place to really get away. You have to share yours with the jars and brooms.”

“I am used to it now,” Maria confessed. “But at first I was very unhappy.”

“What changed your mind?” Giovanni asked, flashing his brightest smile.

“I decided that I was here and I was going to make the best of it,” Maria said. “Usually, when I make up my mind to think a certain way, it helps things go along better.”

And did it help?”

“Yes,” Maria answered truthfully.

“So here is a question I have for you,” Giovanni said quietly. “If I were to come by and ask you to go for a walk sometime would you say yes?”

“We are walking now,” Maria said.

“We are,” he replied. “And I like it very much.”

“So do I,” said Maria.

“Good,” answered Giovanni. “I will keep that in mind when I come to the door of the boarding house and ask for another walk. But now I must get back to work. Ciao, Maria!”

Giovanni fairly bounded back to his work, leaping the rows of vegetables like hurdles in a race. Maria watched till he turned and took off his cap and waved in her direction. She waved back and then continued on her walk to Acmetonia.

Mr. Pierce was somewhat indignant when he read the note about the boarder who had absconded without paying his rent, and swore that he would throw the man out. He scribbled a few lines on the note for Maria to take back to Marigia and then she set off on her homeward walk.

There were farmers in the fields but she did not see Giovanni on return walk. When she drew near to the boarding house, there was some kind of excitement going on in front of it. A crowd had gathered and there was a lot of yelling going on. Not angry yelling, but rather frightened sounds.

Maria found Basilio Bello in the crowd and asked what the matter was.

“Stay here and do not go inside, something has happened,” Basilio said.

“What is it?” Maria insisted.

“A young man has hanged himself,” Basilio answered. “In the attic. He must have secured a piece of rope from somewhere. And then climbed a ladder to a high beam in the attic. And tied the rope to the timber and adjusted a noose around his neck and stepped off the ladder into eternity.”

“How awful,” Maria whispered under her breath.

“The body was found swinging from the beam.” Basilio told her, “he was found by a friend who had gone looking for him. No cause is known for the young man's act.”

Maria stood there in the street and looked around for faces she recognized. Aldo and Cesare were there. Leone Dellaminiera and Maso Istigatore, as well.

Marigia and Giacomo were talking to a man in uniform, a police man or someone from the police force at the mine? She could hear Marigia saying, “The door to the attic is kept locked at all times! I have a strict rule about it. I don’t know how anyone could have gotten up there.”

Scanning the crowd further, Maria realized that Ruvino was missing; also missing were two of the new borders Sam and Alphonse, who had not lived there more than a week. She wondered if it might be one or the other of them. Turning to ask Basilio who the victim was, she discovered that he had gone.

She could hear Marigia talking at the top of her voice again, “Maybe that silly girl left the door unlocked,” she was saying. “I don’t know when she will be back to ask her. I sent her to Acmetonia on an errand.”

”I am over here, Marigia,” Maria said, drawing closer. “I have just returned.”

“Maria! Did you leave the attic door unlocked?” Marigia demanded.

“I have never been up to the attic,” Maria said truthfully. “And you yourself keep all the keys on that big ring.” Maria pointed to it. All that she said was true.

"You spiteful child!” Marigia snapped back. “How could you say such a thing! And when I am sheltering you under my very roof, too! Ingrate!” She raved on like this for some time, as some of the boards tried to calm her down. Marigia only pushed them away. “See, this is how I am repaid for my care and generosity!”

Maria could not believe what she was hearing. But she would listen no longer. She fled from the flow of mean-spirited invective and ran toward the house. As she did, she nearly collided with the men who were carrying out the dead man on a makeshift stretcher formed from some bedclothes. His face had been covered by those tending to this gruesome task, and the arms had been folded on the chest, under the sheet. But one had fallen to the side.

Maria saw the hand as it was suspended there, limp and pale. With a shock of recognition, she realized it belonged to Alphonse Sinise. She searched the faces of the men who were carrying the body—Sam was among them. She caught Sam’s eyes—they told the whole story. It was Alphonse, who would never go home to Italy again.

“Oh no!” Maria said to him.

“Hush for now, Maria,” Sam said. “We will talk when we are able. But let things rest for now.”

The small procession continued onward, Maria watched them go. The white sheet. The limp hand. The broad back of Sam and the others who were carrying Alphonse. In the background, Maria could still hear Marigia shrieking, this time in wails and unintelligible phrases. Once she thought she heard her say, “The house will be haunted!” and then catch herself. Yes, thought Maria, that will not be good for business. Who wants to stay under a roof where a man killed himself in despair? Maria went into the house and found that was still and quiet. No one was stirring although some of the night shift men were surely sleeping. But those who were awake were all still outside in the crowd and commotion.

Maria went back to the storeroom and closed the door. She then pushed a big bin of potatoes against it, to assure herself some privacy. Then, she went to find the package from the Padrone. There it was. She sat down on the bed and before opening it said to herself, “This is the only thing I can do. Alphonse is gone. Marigia is going crazy. But here—there is peace.”

Maria thought back to the farewell tea with the Padrone when he had handed her this small package. Here it was in her hand, still wrapped in the silk scarf, still tied with a golden ribbon.

Maria remembered every word he had said to her as he gave it to her:

“This you must take with you to America, and open it when you have arrived there safely. Promise me that and promise that you will let us know in letters how things go with you.”

"I must start writing these letters," Maria chided herself, as she recalled what the Padrone had said and what she had so readily promised. "I will do so, when I write to say that I have arrived and to say thank you for whatever this present may be," she resolved. And only then did she begin to unwrap the gift.

The scarf itself was a thing of wonder and beauty, silk and soft and designed in such a way that depending on how it was folded certain colors came to the fore. There were gold and blues and just a hint of a deep red, if you held it just so. But to hold it differently allowed the blues to become the major note and the gold and reds to be more subtle.

"Oh, this is a treasure," Maria thought as she placed it around her shoulders, like a shawl.

Once the silk scarf was removed, she saw that underneath was what appeared to be a small box, made of finely chased silver. "This is too fine a present," Maria thought. Certainly there was nothing in the boarding house that would approach its beauty; nor, Maria pondered, in her own home in Noepoli, either. She noticed a small latch on the front of the box and carefully undid it and then lifted up the box's lid, to find that it wasn't a box after all. It was a silver frame; a silver frame, with the center hinge making the top and the bottom of what she had at first thought was a box. But now, she found, it was meant to stand on a table or shelf, with the hinge in the middle. The left side was chased in silver; but on the right side was a small portrait of a young woman.

"It is a portrait of me," Maria mused. "Wearing the scarf in which it was presented to me. How lovely and how very odd, since I have never posed for a portrait."

A note had been tucked into the frame, and had fallen into Maria's lap as she opened it. She turned her attention to it and read as follows:

My Dear Maria,

Here is a small memento of the place of your birth and the people here who will always love you. The scarf was a favorite of my dear wife, and the portrait of her reminds me of you. It was done as a study when the large painting in my library was also made. If you look closely you will see that she is wearing the scarf in the portrait. I have and will always cherish the painting in the library, as a reminder of you as well as of my dear lady. But I thought you should have these other reminders of the connection between us that no ocean can separate. May you enjoy them both wherever life may lead, and may you ever count me as your friend.

In fondness,

Guiseppe Rinaldi

Maria sat there in her small room for some time, thinking about the Padrone and the choice she had made to come to America. She thought of his kindness in sending with her this treasure of his heart. She also thought about the strange events of this day that went from the running of the errand and the walk with Giovanni to the horror of Alphonso’s death, to the shrewish behavior of Marigia, to the solemn look on Sam’s face. It was a memorable day, in many ways.

“I will always remember it so,” Maria thought as she felt the softness of the scarf around her shoulders. As she did, there was a soft knocking at the door of the storeroom.

“Maria are you there?” a whispered voice called.

“Who is it?” Maria answered, though she felt certain she knew who it was.

“Sam,” the voice replied. “I would like to talk with you if you are willing?”

“Oh, yes, Sam.” Maria said. “One moment...” Maria put the photo and the note away and then pushed aside the potato bin. Opening the door, she saw Sam looking at her with a kindness and a tenderness that seemed almost heaven-sent.

Sam took one look at Maria, wrapped in the beautiful shawl, with the wonderful colors bringing out her own fine features and he held his breath a and then said in a whisper,

"Tanto gentile e tanto onesta pare la donna mia..." "So kind and so honest my lady appears to me.”

Maria could not believe her ears. These were the very words that she had imagined the bold knight Jacuvill saying to her. Sam’s words took her back to her childhood daydreams of Jacuvill. She remembered that she would see coming across the valley—a dashing, heroic figure of the “dintorini”. He would know where to find her, he would rescue her from whatever the danger might be.

It was as if, all of the sudden, the reason for coming to America became clear. At least, Maria dared to hope so. She could not bring herself to tell Sam what she was thinking. In fact, it seemed very wrong for her to be thinking anything other than a compassion for him on the loss of Alphonse. She did, nonetheless reach out her hand to his.

“I am so sorry about Alphonse,” she said, as she looked into his hazel eyes. “Words cannot say how sad it makes me that what happened has happened.”

Sam nodded his head slowly. “I want to tell you what I know, but only if you want to hear about it,” he said softly. “I am not going to tell anyone else. They can speculate all they want to. The police know and they are very understanding. From their point of view the matter is closed. But as someone who loved him like a brother, I have to tell someone I can trust. Someone with a heart as well as a mind. I thought of you at once Maria. But if you do not want to know, say so, and I will not speak about it.”

This speech tumbled out rapidly and yet Maria sensed that she had heard it before, and she answered Sam saying, “Yes, I want to hear what you can tell me. I think I need to hear it, for your sake and for my sake. And to honor Alphonse, also.”

“We cannot stay here,” Sam said. “They will all be coming inside soon,”

His words brought Maria back to the moment. She said, “And Marigia will be looking for me to start up the supper.”

“Not tonight, Maria,” Sam said. “I told her she was so mean to you that I am going to take you for a walk so you can cool off and her as well. She has plenty of energy, she might as well use it for something useful and make the supper. The rest of the men backed me up. Basilio told her that if she raised her voice to you unnecessarily again she would be the next one swaying from the rafters.”

Maria looked at Sam, startled. “How that must have hurt you,” she said.

“No, it did not. In fact I wish I had said it myself. Marigia looked at the rest of us and saw that we were all in ernest about it. She gave a bit of a protest but I shut her up. I said that what I have to say to you is more important than any help in the kitchen tonight. And that maybe—just maybe—you will be willing to help her again, starting tomorrow. But only if I can convince you not to go on strike or leave this place. That shut her up, fast.”

“Me, on strike!” Maria said. “how in the world could I go on strike?”

“You have more say so than you realize,” Sam told her. “With all of us behind you. I told her that if you refuse to come back to work that we were all leaving this place for another boarding house.”

“You did?” Maria said in wonderment.

“I did. And they all agreed with me. To a man. You should have seen her face. I stopped looking when her chin reached the roadbed.”

With that, Maria laughed and realized that this was her chance to have some time away from the drudgery. She also wanted to hear what Sam had to say about the tragedy that had just befallen him and all of them. And she also simply wanted to be with Sam.

‘Let us go, then,” she said to Sam, “Maybe I will hear about it later, but no matter.”

So out the door they went, with more than a few pairs of eyes watching them. Marigia and Giacomo gave her stern looks but not stern enough to stop her. They followed Freeport Road in the direction of the famous fields but only as far as Guys Run, a small stream that emptied into the Allegheny River just where the land flattened out a bit.

“Let’s go this way,” Sam said. So they walked along Guys Run on the old dirt road that followed its course, putting the river behind them. There were scraggly sumac bushes growing along the way, with their clusters of long narrow leaves. A small flock of Evening Grosbeaks were foraging among the ripening sumac bobs, their yellow feathers flashing against the greenery.

Away from the river, it was as if fifty, one hundred and more years fell away. They were in an area of scrub but not far on either side were woods, filled with old trees that were young before the first Europeans came this way. Sam found a sassafras leaf, and picked it and crushed it in his hand for Maria to smell. The aroma was fresh and appealing. Somewhere near by a mocking bird was giving one of its recitals.

“It is strange, Maria said, “that all of this is here, not more than a few steps from the traffic on Freeport Road and on the river.”

“Yes,” Sam agreed. “It is noisy and busy there, and peaceful all of the sudden here. I think that is was Adolpho was seeking. Peacefulness.”

“He chose a terrible way to find it,” Maria said.

Sam nodded. “You know, he never wanted to come to America. His attitude was against it from the very start. There was no work for him at home. He had to do something. But he used to say he would have happily become a beggar in Italy before leaving it behind.” Sam kicked a loose stone on the path, and it went flying ahead of them

“So why did he come here?” Maria asked.

“I don’t know. Maybe he thought he would change his mind once he got here. He had heard the stories we all hear. You can scoop up gold from the side of the road. Everyone is a millionaire before a year is past. But he did not believe them any more than I did.” Sam turned around and looked at the sky. “If I had not told the family I was coming to America, I don’t think he would have come on his own. That is why I am blaming myself.”

“Oh, Sam,” Maria said, “You must never do that. He was sad—distraught. I don’t think anyone would have been able to stop him. If they did, today, he would have tried it again, another day.”

“Yes, you are right,” Sam agreed, nodding his head slowly. “The fact is, he told me on the boat that he would go overboard before we got to New York. But then he got sick, and was in his bed the whole way across. Weak as a kitten. I thought it was God protecting him from the dark waters of the Atlantic.”

"It was,” Maria agreed.

“Then we got to America and all of the sudden he was well again. Not strong, but not sick. He went through the medical inspection at Ellis Island without any concern from the examiners. And then we were on our way here. And he was very quiet watching the land pass before our eyes outside the windows. We had gone a long way before he turned to me and told me that with every mile, his homeland was becoming more of a lost dream and less of a reality.”

Maria nodded. This untamed area boasted a profusion of plants that were new to Maria’s eyes: blue curls, butterfly weed, and black cohosh, doll's eyes, goat's beard, pink milkweed and white wood aster. Here and there could also be seen jack-in-the-pulpit, spreading Jacob's ladder, brown-eyed Susan, wild geranium, and blazing star.

They had by now turned off the winding road alongside the stream, and were climbing a tall hill, that rose to the left side of it. She wanted to ask Sam where they were and where they were going, but she did not want to interrupt him as he talked about Adolpho.

“I knew how he was feeling,” Sam continued. “I was feeling the same way. I think we all feel it when we go so far from home. Except maybe scoundrels and thieves."

The path grew steeper as they went upward. Sam offered Maria his arm, and the climbed side by side. It occured to Maria at that moment that she had walked in the old country with her first love and she had climbed a volcano with Rico. Now, where would this walk with Sam lead?

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